The opposition parties’ plans to throw their combined support behind the same candidates has the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito on edge just over two weeks before the Lower House election.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and other opposition forces are cooperating with a goal of achieving a change of government by capitalizing on deep public frustration over the ruling coalition’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and over money-related scandals involving politicians.

That cooperation has given the LDP, which has long dominated the nation’s political scene, a rare bit of uncertainty heading into the general election.

‘Constitutional Communist Party’

On Thursday, the House of Representatives, the powerful lower chamber of the Diet, was dissolved for the Oct. 31 election.

Within the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito, a sense of crisis over the Lower House election receded after the face of the campaign changed with the election of LDP President and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in place of Yoshihide Suga — who came under harsh public criticism over his handling of the pandemic.

Hoping to make the best of the new government’s fresh look, the ruling parties rejected opposition demands for substantive policy debates in the extraordinary parliamentary session in which Kishida was elected prime minister and set the stage for a short-term election battle, with the Lower House poll taking place only 27 days after Kishida took office on Oct. 4.

The ruling camp realized, however, that there is no time for complacency, as the JCP announced Wednesday, the day before the Lower House dissolution, that it will withdraw candidates from 21 single-seat constituencies to avoid splitting the opposition vote with the CDP.

As a result of the JCP’s decision, unified opposition candidates will run in more than 200 constituencies, or about 70% of all single-seat districts.

Kazuo Shii, head of the Japanese Communist Party, gives a stump speech in front of Ikebukuro Station on Thursday after the dissolution of the Lower House of the Diet. | KYODO
Kazuo Shii, head of the Japanese Communist Party, gives a stump speech in front of Ikebukuro Station on Thursday after the dissolution of the Lower House of the Diet. | KYODO

This means that unlike the past three Lower House elections, in which the LDP scored overwhelming victories, voters critical of the government can converge on a single candidate in each district.

“Which one would you choose, a government of liberalism and democracy or a government incorporating communism?” LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari asked reporters on Thursday in an apparent attempt to fuel a feeling of aversion to the JCP and CDP’s plan. “The biggest focus (of the coming election) will be the choice of government. (Voters) need to be aware of this.”

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also criticized the sudden opposition unity. “They are cooperating despite their totally different positions (on security policy). This is a bid-rigging style of cooperation intended solely for the election,” he told reporters.

“Something like a ‘Constitutional Communist Party’ is being created in many parts of the country,” LDP Vice President Taro Aso told a meeting of his intraparty faction, in a quip that can be taken as reflecting his irritation.

Anybody’s guess

For three days through Wednesday, Kishida answered questions from opposition party lawmakers about the policy speech he delivered at the Diet on Oct. 8, his first as prime minister.

He said he aims for a new form of capitalism backed by a virtuous circle of economic growth and wealth redistribution, but he had to backpedal on some policy proposals he put forward in the LDP leadership election last month, including a modern version of the 1960s income-doubling plan and higher taxes on incomes.

Kishida also sounded unenthusiastic on the issue of accountability for money and politics.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida | POOL / VIA REUTERS

He answered opposition questions in a bland tone, leaving some in the ruling camp disgruntled.

LDP headquarters conducted a survey last weekend on how party candidates are likely to perform in the coming general election. The results were “not bad, but not as good as expected,” an informed source said.

An example of this unusual uncertainty for the LDP is the race for a seat representing Shizuoka Prefecture in the House of Councilors, the upper chamber, where a candidate backed by the ruling coalition is struggling to garner wide voter support, according to one analysis.

“There is a celebratory boost to public support for our party after the change of prime minister,” a senior LDP official said. “But I wonder if this will continue until the voting day. The JCP’s withdrawal of candidates is expected to have a significant impact.”

“(Unified) opposition candidates are each expected to gain an additional 20,000 to 30,000 votes that would otherwise go to JCP candidates,” a former Cabinet minister said. “In an increasing number of districts, the election results are anybody’s guess.”

A changing of the guard

“We will restore honest politics,” Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition CDP, said at a party meeting on Thursday.

Edano stressed his determination to achieve a change of government, symbolically noting that, according to the traditional Japanese calendar, Thursday was the anniversary of the Tokugawa shogunate’s transfer of power back to the Imperial court in 1867.

“Today, we stand on the starting line to put an end to politics where only one party is strong,” he said.

JCP leader Kazuo Shii kept in lockstep with Edano.

“The choice of government is the biggest focus (of the election), whether to allow the LDP and Komeito to stay in power or switch to a new government,” Shii told a news conference.

Still, there is a difference of opinion between the CDP and the JCP over how they would work in a new government if they oust the LDP and Komeito.

The CDP and the JCP reached an agreement on Sept. 30 that the JCP would cooperate with a possible CDP-led government from outside the Cabinet in a limited way. The CDP says the agreement made it clear that the JCP would not participate in a coalition government led by the CDP.

But at Thursday’s news conference, Shii was noncommittal on whether the JCP would join a ruling coalition or remain in opposition.

Moves by the CDP and the JCP to close ranks have bred antipathy in the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), which will work with the CDP in the Lower House election, as well as with the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, or Rengo, the umbrella body of labor unions across Japan — which supports both the CDP and the DPFP.

“If this goes on, we will need to take a second look at our relations with the CDP,” an executive of the DPFP said.

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